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Making the invisible side of Edinburgh ‘visible’

People affected by homelessness are offering unique city tours in Edinburgh, as Jamie Hailstone reports

If you want to really get to know a city, you have avoid the usual tourist traps to spend some time with people who live there.

And although there are plenty of tour guides who can show you around Edinburgh, the social enterprise Invisible (Edinburgh) offers visitors to the Scottish capital a walking tour with a difference.

All of its tour guides have been affected by homelessness and can offer their own personal insight into Edinburgh’s past, present and future.

The social enterprise was founded by Zakia Moulaoui, after she went on a similar tour in Athens, organised by the Greek street paper Shedia.

Instead of the usual tourist hotspots, the Shedia ‘invisible tours’ take visitors through the backstreets of central Athens, introducing them to soup kitchens, drug rehabilitation centres and homeless shelters.

Seeing a different side of a city

The homeless guides also provide information on the types of services offered by each institution, as well as how they themselves have experienced or are still experiencing homelessness.

‘It was really great to see a different side of Athens,’ Ms Moulaoui said. ‘It made me want to find out more and gave me a sense of awareness about all the different social issues in Athens.

‘I thought we should do it in Edinburgh,’ she added. ‘It’s the capital city, but at the same time it’s quite small. There’s a lot to talk about here and, unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who could benefit from it.

Invisible (Edinburgh) was launched last year and they currently have three unpaid tour guides, who have experienced homelessness themselves and are able to take visitors on tours, which all showcase their experiences of Edinburgh.

Ms Moulaoui said the social enterprise has worked with the homeless charity Crisis to help the tour guides with confidence, public speaking and the history of the city.

‘Our aim is to break down the stigma that exists around homelessness while providing a new opportunity to our guides to meet new people and gain new skills.

‘Every guide has a theme, which describes their tour,’ she explained. ‘We have one around crime and punishment, which is a bit scary and spooky. We have another about powerful women in Edinburgh and then the newest tour is around the Edinburgh festival and arts.

‘What I always wanted to do was create an opportunity for someone to come to Edinburgh and meet one of our guides, who comes from a very different background and has had difficulties in their life,’ she adds.

We create this space where you get to meet each other, walk around the city and find out about the city in a different way.

‘The guides have to entertain the groups they are with. They really enjoy it, because it’s a positive environment.’

Profits are re-invested into homeless services

All the profits from the tours go back into training for the tour guides and other projects, such as Street Barber Edinburgh, which started last month and offers free haircuts and toiletries to homeless people from the Leith Walk Police Box in the city centre.

Ms Moulaoui said at the moment they can only offer haircuts to men, but are hoping to be able to offer free haircuts to woman as well in the New Year.

The social enterprise is a regional finalist in this year’s Thistle Awards in the Innovation Tourism category, organised by VisitScotland. The winners of this year’s awards will be announced later this month.

And she adds, the group is also looking to expand and offer tours in Glasgow.

‘The cool thing about Glasgow is you can do it from a different perspective,’ added Ms Moulaoui.

‘I would be interested in getting newcomers – refugees or asylum seekers – who are new to the city and show a vision of what Glasgow means to them, which I’m sure would be very different to what Glasgow is to everyone else.

‘You could do this anywhere,’ she added. ‘There is a need in the market for people travelling in a different way, being more conscious about what they do and wanting to have an impact on the ground where they go.

‘For us, it’s great, because it opens up a conversation about homelessness and addiction. A couple of days ago, we had a woman on a tour from Mumbai and she was talking about India and the amount of people who sleep on the streets there. Our guide couldn’t quite understand, because she was saying in Mumbai alone there are 22 million people. In Scotland you just have 5 million. It certainly widens your horizons.’

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